Stanley Zappa Biography
Born in Southern California, son of Bob (Frank’s Brother), Apostrophe, namely Ruth Underwood’s marimba, is my first memory of music. Guitar lessons began as a pre-teen (with the late Jon Van Wie, better know for his mouthpiece work). This resulted first in rock band shenanigans, and later, acoustic bass duty in the high school, town and eventually the Northern New Jersey “Region 1” symphony orchestra. Bennington College (namely study with Bill Dixon and Milford Graves) followed, thus beginning my relationship with the single reed began. After graduation, collaborations with Rashid Bakr, Marco Eneidi, John Blum, Nick Skrowaczewski, Laurence Cook singularly focused my beam on what is affectionately known as “the music that supplanted Jazz as the premier art music of the day.”
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Interview with Stanley Zappa
Earlier this week, Festival Archive was able to touch base with bass guitarists, Stanley Zappa and ask him a few questions…
If somebody has never heard your music before, how would you describe it to them in one sentence?
The music of throwing your homework on to the fire on the last day of school in the nude.
Who were your main musical inspirations growing up?
Frank Zappa was the first one. From there, it was on to the Jazz canon as represented by my mothers record collection (with the Coltrane recordings enjoying more play than all the others combined.) Hearing “Wolf Whistle” by Peter Brotzman and Andrew Cyrille on WKCR got me hearing things a certain way. The Dead Kennedys, The Clash, the Bad Brains and Peter Tosh were also early influences.
What made you decide to become a musician and are any of your close family musically talented?
I like to think it wasn’t a decision, but a mix of destiny, blessing, curse and configuration of DNA. Despite my best efforts to be the best office administrator possible, I haven’t been able to sustain the interest (or ruse) despite my best efforts. As for musical talent of close family, first we need to define “close.” Before my uncle (Frank) did everything he could to (successfully) get my father off the scene and into the Marine Corps (at age 17), he was the guitar player and Frank was the drummer.
My mother apparently played the clarinet in high school, but gave that up for a life in nursing. She was the real music lover in the family, however. Lots of records, many trips to William Patterson College in New Jersey to enjoy their Sunday “Jazz Room” series of concerts together and infinite patience for my fascination with uneasy listening.
On a weekly basis, about how much time do you spend practising?
That varies according to my employment. Fortunately/unfortunately that employment is seasonal. When not at the bakery, 20 to 30 hours a week is the norm. Once I start waking up at 3:30am, practice time seems to die back to 10 to 15 hours per week.
Do you attend sessions, if so, what do you think makes a good session?
Since moving to my present rural locale, sessions have all but stopped. Back in the good ol’ days of the early 90’s, sessions at the dearly departed Context Studios on Avenue A in Manhattan was a weekly occasion with Rashid Bakr, John Blum, Marco Eneidi and sundry others.. Just like the only thing worse that bad press is no press, any session is a good session—there’s always something to learn and take away from the experience.
Do you have a fixed preparation regime before going out on stage? How do you cope with nerves?
Most of my preparation consists of finding a working reed. Nerves aren’t really a problem for me. What do I have to be nervous about? It’s music, not open heart surgery. I do occasionally wonder about the welfare of the listeners nerves, but that rarely lasts.
How do you handle mistakes during a performance?
I build on them, much in the way one might put on lurid red lipstick when one has lurid red acne. Dr. Wilhelm Reich cured me of the “perfection” problem. What in nature is “perfect?”
What has been your most memorable gig?
They have all be equally memorable/forgettable. Performance for me is less about delivering a commodity to satisfy consumer wants/needs, more about glorifying Saraswati, conjuring and honouring the power that is music with others.
As far as gig’s I have seen, Charles Gayle’s string of performances in the early 90’s at the old Knitting Factory (from which his recording Repent was drawn) stands out. As does Gayle’s performance with Milford Graves and William Parker at the Webo gallery a year or so before. Dixon’s performance at the St. Mark’s church with Arthur Brooks, Gary Sojokowski and J. R. Mitchell also changed my life forever.
Which is the one place where you’ve always wanted to perform?
The place has always been secondary to the collaborators. I’d rather perform with beloved colleagues and comrades in a broom closet at the bottom of the ocean with no audience than at the Kremlin or White house with musicians on a different, antagonistic, plane of consciousness.
If we were to walk into your studio, what equipment are we likely to find?
A number of coffee mugs, a broken cassette deck, student horns with above average mouthpieces, a digital multi-track recording device from the 90’s, a knock off Fender Electric Jazz Bass and a mountain of books.
Which famous present day musicians do you admire the most and why?
All the musicians I admire have an undeniable Sui-generis aesthetic that is instantly identifiable: Bill Dixon, Charles Gayle, Daniel Carter, John Blum, Marco Eneidi, Laurence Cook, William Parker, Charles Downs, Nick Skrowaczewski, Cecil Taylor, Milford Graves, Giuseppe Logan, Evan Parker, and Mat Maneri, just to name a few.
What’s it like being a professional musician, playing gigs, releasing CDs, etc.? Do you feel you’ve reached your goals?
Finally, after 20 plus years on the horn, I’m starting to hear who I am and where I fit in the larger sound-picture. I’m also starting to hear what I want to do, and what I hope to be musically. The professional aspect is part of a larger dialectic about capital and capitalism’s effect on music that can’t help but include Marx. I don’t expect to ever reconcile capital’s wants and needs with my musical ambitions. I’ve sort of made peace with that, though I do reserve the right to complain about it.
How do you balance your music with other obligations? – Besides music, what else are you into?
Again, that balance is foisted upon me. A big part of my day to day is spent scheming as to how I can unbalance my music with other obligations so that music can be the primary obligation. In the mean time, reading, gardening and visual arts both fills the void and compliments my conception of music and what it means to be a musician. Bill Dixon was a fantastic visual artist, Milford Graves has a tremendously inspiring garden, Evan Parker is unbelievably well read (and a “maven” at crossword puzzles—and not those easy Saturday New York times puzzles, but the really hard British ones). I am reminded of Bill Dixon’s quote “you play who you are.” I don’t want to be bored or boring. That much I know.
What are you goals and aspirations for the future?
Sustainability. Functionality. Minimizing the “fly paper” of life. Getting my employ and living situation to where it supports my musical enquiry, rather than forces it to be the antidote to a life poisoned by capitalism’s insanity. Musically, I continue to shovel my way through tonality (from Bach to Jamey Aebersold) if only to know what to avoid. Ear training is another pursuit to which I can’t seem to allocate enough time or energy.
What advise would you give any aspiring musicians wanting to make a name for themselves?
Make sure you have a well considered definition of what “making a name” means, and what you will and will not do towards those ends. I would also advise all aspiring musicians to also get a trade, like plumbing. Where I live, any idiot who can write their name on the side of their truck is eligible for $90 an hour, no matter how inept or shoddy the work or miserably belligerent their demeanour. Though not the be all and end all, money is certainly a mood changer. To rely upon the music economy for support is an invitation to desperation and ultimately, compromises in what you do.
Who are your top all time favourite jazz musicians?
“Jazz” you say…well, without getting into what and where are the boundaries of “Jazz” I can safely say Ahmad Jamal, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Hank Mobley, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Don Byas, Booker Ervin, Pat Martino. Of course as soon as I press “send” I’ll remember others…Eric Dolphy, Don Pullen, Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison, Henry Grimes…I tend to favour “hard bop” rather than, uh, soft bop?
Please tell us a little more about any singles or albums you are currently working on…
Recently I’ve been working on making “music videos” for a recent duet recording with drummer Nick Skrowaczewski. If there is such a thing as leading by example, I hope that these low budget videos will inspire other creative/improvising musicians to do the same, towards the ends of a home-made, free-jazz MTV. Maybe that’s me lunging at the sword—I’d hate to have to argue MTV’s benevolence, and certainly just because the technology exists doesn’t mean that technology exists for the good of humanity, but it might be fun in a cable access kind of way.
In 2014, Catherine Sikora, Nick Skrowaczewski and I are headed to Prince George, British Columbia to perform at the second annual Casse Tete festival of improvised and experimental music. At the first annual Casse Tete, I performed with a quintet. That recording should manifest some way, some how soon. Casse Tete is a great festival, and I’m very excited to be going there with two of my most favourite musicians.
We would like to thank Stanley for taking the time to talk with us, we hope you have enjoyed learning a little more about this talented musician. Remember to check out Stanley’s website for further details on upcoming gigs, album releases etc.
Thank you Stanley and best of luck with your future endeavors.
The Festival Archive team
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